Friday, 26 December 2008
An Indian traveller in a Connecticut snowstorm
The forecast was categorical. A snowstorm will begin at 9 AM; likely to continue for eight hours; eight to ten inches of snow. Having lived in the tropics all my life, I found the prospect appealing. But like many people born long before the age of satellite imagery and supercomputers, I have an emotional problem about relying on weather forecasts. A wonderful Bengali author, Syed Mujtaba Ali once wrote: “The problem with weather forecasts is that it’s risky to ignore them; and the question of trusting them doesn’t arise!”
The weather forecast is amazingly accurate in the US of A in the twenty-first century. I have been here for over three months now, and I find that the weathermen hit the bull’s eye with metronomic monotony. There are even hourly forecasts for big cities. You can plan your day with precision and can almost set your watch looking at the sky.
So, when there was no sign of snow at nine in the morning, I felt a little cheated. The sky was overcast, but that was about all. Warning about the storm – they call it advisory here – was repeatedly broadcast over radio and TV and schools were given a day off. But otherwise, the day began normally that morning. Not surprising: people here don’t bunk office even for much weightier reasons like the election of Barack Obama.
One of our neighbours, an elderly woman, leaves for office at seven in the morning and returns home by three. As I went out to pick up the newspaper, I saw her going out. Instead of taking the car, she left on foot.
The sky turned dirty grey and snow arrived one hour later than scheduled. Specks of white started coming down from the sky at ten. Soon, rooftops, roads, porches, and patios were covered under a sheet of white. Visibility was low, cars and trucks switched on their fog lamps. Within an hour or so, the tiny specs of snow became heavy white blobs and the white sheet turned into a thick quilt. Snow collected on the leaves of coniferous trees and the denuded branches of other trees. Smaller trees and bushes bore the brunt of the aggression, just as poor people suffer most in times of calamities. The hedges that serve as boundaries between individual compounds were all under inches of snow and were bent down to the ground.
When my wife and I went out to a nearby eatery to have a coffee, we found the place doing business as usual. People drove in, bought their breakfast and left. After exchanging customary pleasantries with us, the girl at the counter said, ‘The roads are treacherous! Take care.’
I told her that the chips they serve is great. She asked me if they make potato chips in India.
We couldn’t but take care. The cold wind was cutting and the ground beneath our feet was treacherous indeed. No one was on the road, but scores of cars went past as usual.
Street lights were turned on as darkness descended by afternoon. The roads were slushy, almost undrivable. Soon, some trucks with snow ploughs arrived like knights in shining armour. They strutted about, pushing snow to the shoulders of the road, even as other vehicles crawled gingerly. Men and women of all ages came out with shovels to clear snow from their driveways.
Our elderly neighbour returned home plodding through knee-deep snow. It was just another day in office for her.
Salman Rushdie wrote, possibly in The Satanic Verses, it is difficult to be an American outside America and be loved. How true. From Hiroshima to Vietnam to Iraq, so many stupid and vicious US governments tried so hard to make Americans unpopular around the world.
But when one is in America, one cannot but respect Americans for some of their qualities. In India, hardworking people are exceptions. Here, they are the rule. And everyone does their work without fuss. Back home in Kolkata, I consider myself lucky if the newspaper is delivered by eight, although the paper is printed ten kilometres away from my house. The place where I stay now is eighty kilometres from New York, but New York Times is delivered at our doorsteps invariably by six thirty in pitch darkness, wrapped in a blue plastic packet. (Two packets when it rains.) On the night after the snowstorm, plough trucks worked through the night to clear the roads completely. No one was stuck in the morning.
Many things about the American society are different from ours. One of them is the respect for physical labour. A plumber or a postman or the men/women who cleared the roads that night enjoy a level of respect that is unthinkable for their counterparts in India. The mammoth that the USA is today did not become a mammoth for nothing. Much sacrifice and persistent hard work over centuries have gone into building this gigantic edifice.
Hard work … that is one trick we have missed.
Wednesday, 24 December 2008